During the First World War, Royal Naval Airships from Polegate patrolled the coast of East Sussex.
If you were living in Willingdon 100 years ago you would have witnessed great activity as Royal Naval personnel started arriving at the partially constructed Royal Naval Airship Station (RNAS). It covered 142 acres of somewhat marshy meadowland stretching, from the Triangle at Lower Willingdon, towards the windmill and had been part of the Ratton Estate belonging to Lord Willingdon until it was auctioned in September 1913. George Morrish bought 14 acres to set up a chicken farm to supply his shop in London with eggs. However, in 1914 the land was requisitioned and the station entrance, motor transport garage and main accommodation buildings were built on what had been his land. The site was thought perfect; flat and sheltered by the Downs and conveniently close to the coast.
Enemy U-Boat activity increased considerably at the beginning of 1915, particularly threatening our shipping in the English Channel. In February of that year Germany had declared all waters off Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be a war zone and would destroy any British shipping found in these waters. Airships were the ideal craft to patrol the Channel so, in March 1915 an SS (Submarine Scout) class semi-rigid airship was hastily designed at RNAS Kingsnorth and put into service in less than 3 weeks. The gondola control car was a BE 2c aircraft, minus wings, rudder and with a few modifications was suspended by wire stays below the hydrogen filled gasbag. It held two crew, a wireless operator observer in front with the pilot seated aft. Two bombs were suspended in frames under the envelope above the gondola and a Lewis gun was mounted beside the pilot’s seat.
So it was that the country’s second airship station, part of the Dover Command, was built at Willingdon with the entrance at the Triangle, the present day junction with Coppice Avenue. It was named Polegate as it was the practice to name bases after the nearest Railway Station, although the entire area was within the parish of Willingdon. Building work commenced in early 1915 and on 6 July that year it was commissioned with one SS airship which made its first flight that day and was soon joined by others. These airships patrolled our waters daily, between Dungerness and Portland Bill, searching for U boats and mines which they could destroy with their bombs. They also accompanied military convoys and hospital ships, which brought casualties home from the front and would radio Morse code to warn these vessels of any imminent danger.
During the early part of 1915 the station was described as a mass of slimy water logged clay, with no roads or paths. The few officers were accommodated in the thatched cottage at Wannock, other ranks were billeted mostly in houses at Wannock and Willingdon until the accommodation huts were constructed. This situation lasted until the summer of 1916 but by the autumn of that year two colossal airship sheds, a large motor transport workshop, and buildings to accommodate and run the base had been constructed. A hydrogen gas making plant was built on what is now the entrance to Willingdon Community School Broad Road, with explosives; bombs and ammunition, stored in an area that is now the top corner of Broad Road School playing fields. Concrete mooring blocks were constructed where St Wilfrid’s church was later built. These remained until the 1950s and were a great attraction for the local children to climb on. Others still remain to this day at the foot of the downs in Donkey Hollow with huge metal rings in the centre. By 1917 the main roads of the base were constructed, later to become what are now Coppice Avenue and Broad Road. Parade grounds, quarterdecks, sports pitches were finished and Mr Gregg, owner of Wannock Fruit and Tea Gardens helped lay out attractive flowerbeds.
My grandmother said all the activity in what was the quiet rural village of Willingdon, population approximately 860, caused great interest among the villagers. Although classed ‘small’, these airships were huge vessels 143 feet 5 inches long and 43 feet 5 inches in height. It must have been an amazing sight to watch them low in the sky leaving and returning on daily patrols to an area from the Triangle between the main A22 road and Wannock Lane. The Renault air-cooled engines of the SS class were constantly overheating and cutting out, The crew became expert at climbing out on the undercarriage, repairing and re-starting the engines with the 9 foot diameter propeller whilst clinging onto struts with their knees some 3,000 feet above the Channel. In 1916 the SS class ships were superseded by the improved SSZ (Zero) Class, six being sent to Willingdon by 1917. These had water-cooled Rolls Royce Hawk engines plus a specially designed car, which held three crew. The pilot sat amidships with the engineer aft and the wireless operator who acted as observer, gunner and bomber in the fore.
In January 1916 151 men were stationed here; increasing to 226 in January 1917 and by 1918, 302 personnel were housed at the station. They formed an orchestra, brass band, concert party, football, cricket, rugby, tennis and tug-of-war teams. The first sports day was held on what is now the land of Willingdon Primary School in July 1917, a Military Band visiting from Eastbourne and over 2,000 guests including most of the inhabitants of Willingdon. A cinema theatre in their own YMCA hut gave twice-weekly shows with programmes changing each time. By the end of 1917 the base was producing its own monthly magazine, ‘The Ripping Panel’ selling for 3d. In early 1918, 54 young women of the WRNS arrived as clerks, cooks, drivers and fabric workers and were billeted in ‘Shortlands’ Church Street, now called ‘Hastoun House’, a 15 minute walk from the men’s quarters at the base.
A number of records were set at the Polegate Airship Station; the highest altitude, 10,000 feet, and the longest flight of 620 miles taking 17 hours in July 1916. The first parachute descent from an airship was over Willingdon on 5 August 1916 when Sir Bryan Leighton dropped from 900 feet witnessed by many locals. In the spring of 1916 the War Office attended a demonstration here of the stealth vessel, ‘Black Ship’ SS40. Mr Asquith the Prime Minister visited the station in December 1916. All this activity had quite an effect on the small parish of Willingdon. Several local girls married men from the base at Willingdon Church with often an airship floating overhead and comrades of the groom dropping a lucky boot and cheering the happy couple.
After the Armistice, the station was disbanded on 6 February 1920 and handed to the Disposal Board in June. Buildings, stores and equipment were auction 3-5 August 1920. The Polegate airships, which transferred to Portsmouth Command 23 July 1917, played a major roll in the war being one of the most effective counter measures against enemy submarines. The airships from Polegate flew more hours than any other allied airship station both in 1917 and 1918; a total of 8,140 hours in the last year of the war in the defence of our waters.
This story was submitted by Rosalind Hodge, Archivist, Willingdon Parish Church